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Preface

Introduction

The French played an important roll in the events that occured in the south of the Netherlands during the May War in 1940. Whatever the thoughts may be on their general performance (or lack thereof), the French presence in the Netherlands does deserve some evaluation.

German expectations 

The fact that the French 7th Army would be sent up north upon a German invasion was already known by the German intelligence prior to the invasion. Before the Germans found proof of the French defence strategy they had already suspected the French supreme command of planning a strong French army presence in Belgium. The Germans thought that the French would prefer to counter an offensive in Belgium and use the northern neighbour as a buffer for the home-country. That had also been the plan in WWI.

As off February 1940 the Germans were convinced that the French would endeavour to safeguard Antwerp and seal off the northern front for any German penetration into Belgium from the northwest. This knowledge had in particular been gathered by simply listening out the French (cracked) code-messages that were wired when the German invasion-plans had been found in a crashed German plane in Belgium in January 1940. From the suddenly intensified French exchange of instructions it was learnt what was already expected: a large French force would march into Belgium once the invasion would become a fact. This was very useful information to the German Abwehr. The staffs that were in the process of fine-tuning the offensive [Fall Gelb] were overjoyed with these intelligence results.

The German strategy was very much based on the strong reinforcement by the BEF and the French Army of the Belgian theatre. The Manstein plan - the basis for the final version of Fall Gelb - had been constructed on the assumption that the British Expeditionary Force would immediately march into Belgium, followed by at least two French armies. The central German armies [4th and 6th] were instructed to attract these Allied forces to the central front, whereas the 18th Army in the north and the 12th Army in the south were instructed to advance as quickly as possible straight to the coast.

The 12th Army in particular had to execute the heaviest assignment of breaking through in the sector Dinant-Sedan after penetrating the Ardennes region and advance - in an arc shaped line - to the Northsea cost. They had to operate in an expeditious way in order to surprise the Allied Generals and as such place an armoured wedge between the French territory and the Allied forces in Belgium. The 12th Army would be supported by a large Luftwaffe force. No less than five tank divisions were assigned to the huge 12th Army to be able to meet the rigid requirements of the strategy, assisted by two more divisions on their right flank. The fact that the BEF and the French 1st and 7th Army would march deep into Belgian territory was a development that totally fitted the German plans.

French 7th Army

The French 7th Army was an impressive unit on paper, with one of the finest French Generals (on paper again!) in command: Giraud. The 7th Army consisted of five infantry division [2 off which were mechanised], one attached tank division with light and medium tanks and one armoured reconnaissance brigade. As an additional reinforcement another tank brigade had been attached. The majority of these units were equipped with modest contingents artillery and light AAA. Later another infantry division was added to the 7th Army [the 68th].

The French army had no special interest in the Dutch cause. The only objectives that the French were after were 1) the safeguarding of Antwerp - by forming a screen around the Schelde and 2) to be the seal on the northern door to Belgium in addition to the Belgium troops along the defence-lines south of the Dutch border and 3) by flanking the Belgian army on both sides of the Belgian KW line, Gamelin thought that the Belgian CIC would sumit to the leading French strategy. The northern deployment of considerable French forces was in a second stage of the battle of importance to enable the launching of a counter offensive into the German industrial heart. Gamelin considered the north of Belgium and the south of Holland excellent terrain to launch such a counter action after the German offensive would have been successfully halted.

That these objectives would lead the French also partly over Dutch soil had nothing to do with any genuine desire to contribute to the Dutch cause. The French had but one main objective in Holland: form a screen around the Schelde, possibly extended with a forward defence east of Breda. That the Dutch defence of the southeast of Brabant contributed to the French plans, forced the French to coordinate with the Dutch once the first main units arrived in Holland at the 10th and 11th. But it was not the kind of coordination and combined command and control that was initiated by an ally that really looked for intwined interest. It was more like a quest for Dutch submission to French tactical decisions.

French arrival on Dutch soil

When the first French troops had arrived they were soon confronted with the Dutch Territorial Commander [TC], who tried to do everything within his power to coordinate his actions with the new ally. Unfortunately the French did not appear to have received any consistent instructions themselves. Every time the TC met with a French officer another instruction or piece of information was given. Once it had become clear that the Germans had broken through the Peel-Raamline, the French lost every interest in the Dutch and started to plan their own strategy, regardless of Dutch participation or interest. They hardly involved the Dutch anymore and when they did it was due to Dutch initiative - with exception of the French order to evacuate the city of Breda.

A handful of French/Dutch coordinated actions was nevertheless registered. Two of the most important were the evacuation of Breda [12 May] and the limited action around Moerdijk [11 May]. Not incidentally, both these actions incorporated French interest. The first due to the desire to form a strong defence around Breda (as a consequence of the still valuable Dyle-Breda concept), and the second as a consequence of the mission to have a French liaison-officer from the GQG facilitated a save passage to The Hague. A typical detail in the Moerdijk matter was that the first arriving French contingent (Major Michon) had no interest whatsoever to assault the Germans at Moerdijk. They were just there to establish a battlefield awareness of this critical area. Only when Lieutenant Martin arrived with the French General Eugene Mittelhauser on board, Major Michon decided to assault Moerdijk. But, he did so without coordinating the assault with the Dutch.

Later at Bergen op Zoom and the Roosendaal district another series of (poorly) coordinated actions followed. In all of these instances the French totally ignored the Dutch after they had issued the orders. The attempt to coordinate a defence-line east and north of Tilburg failed too. The Dutch were unable to meet their end of the plan and the French virtually retreated before a shot was fired. On many occasions when local Dutch commanders had been incorporated in the French plans, the French altered plans without informing the Dutch. The latter usually had to find out themselves what had happened. In other words: the cooperation between the two Allies was disastrous.

That poor coordination was mainly to blame on the French, that had not even the basic intention to coordinate once they had learnt that the Peel-Raamline had collapsed. But it would be unfair to the French not to be critical about the Dutch side too. First and farmost, the Dutch strategy of evacuating Noord-Brabant with the main formations, must have been a slap in the face of the French officers assigned to the Dutch theatre. Notwithstanding the fact that Gamelin was very aware of the Dutch strategy, the officers in the field had to deal with the consequences and ... had not been informed by their superiors. An unpleasant surprise to them. More importantly perhaps, the Dutch army command had utterly failed when it came to their preparation of joint Dutch-French operations in the south. It is an unsolved mystery why General Winkelman and his staff totally forgot to form a liaison staff in the south or even select battalion commanders that spoke French for the units that would stay in Noord-Brabant, like the ones in the Peel-Raamline, the 3rd and 6th Border Infantry Battalions and the Territorial Command. That was an omission on the Dutch side that formed a huge liability in relation to the Command and Control component. An omission that mattered more than many conceive(d) and fully for the account of the Dutch. Particularly because the Dutch army had plenty of officers that did speak French rather well.

General French performance

The French operational performance was nothing less than a show of incompetence. The powerful army of Giraud failed time and again to even form a solid front and when they had indeed managed to take a position the first appearance of even the weakest German unit was enough to have the French quickly moving away from the front. Even south of Tilburg - and later at Bergen op Zoom - where the French had plenty of medium tanks and heavy armoured cars available [against no German tank whatsoever at Bergen op Zoom] the French retreated even before a serious engagement had developed. The action at Moerdijk - the only French action that actually mattered to the Dutch cause - was no exception; everywhere in Brabant the French units disengaged without any acceptable form of opposition. The one exception to this very poor French performance was a local skirmish south of Breda [Ginneken], where a French company managed to hold a German force occupied during the night from 12 to 13 May.

This poor performance of the 7th Army main body was not only seen in the Netherlands. In fact the 7th Army avoided every serious engagement anywhere, also south of the border. The entire army was shifted around and around by its commander, never genuinly engaging and in the end all this avoiding action had this once formidable army outmanoeuvred by the Germans and its units lost one at the time. Exactly as Gamelin had feared and predicted in the winter of 1940 when he stated that his Generals (he was in particular referring to Georges, Billotte and Giraud) lacked operational focus: he stated that they rather relied on organisational (over)control than that they were searching for operational opportunities. The 7th Army was particularly badly used by the French.

In Brabant the last Frenchman would disappear after the yet again disappointing French 'defence' around Bergen op Zoom at the 14th. Although a French force with over 100 medium tanks and armoured cars defended the area around Bergen op Zoom and Woensdrecht, they let themselves simply being chased off by only two German SS battalions that had no tanks whatsoever and just a handful of armoured cars! The French were in such a hurry to fall back that they left a considerable amount of heavy weapons and tanks behind. Even the Germans were amazed of these mild clashes whereas tough battles had been expected.

The French in Zeeland

Meanwhile the province of Zeeland had also received French forces. Basically two of the less able divisions of the 7th Army - the 60th and 68th - had arrived. These divisions comprised elder reservists and were equipped with old and often obsolete material. Still - they took along some additional artillery and light AAA.

The first senior French officer that set the rules in Zeeland was the Brigadier-General Pierre-Servais Durand [1883 - 1956; some sources state that Durand was General-Major in May 1940], assigned from the GQG as commander in chief over the Zeeland land-force formations. This man proved himself a disaster in every aspect of the word. The man managed to frustrate all Dutch senior officers in Zeeland, and was extremely stubborn and conceited. He showed nothing but contempt for his Dutch counterparts. When he failed to perform an effective deployment of French troops he was relieved of his command by his own superior, Admiral Platon. That decision had already been taken in Dunkirk at the 14th, but was only effectuated in the morning of the 16th after all French commanders had held a meeting the evening before. Durand would later serve Vichy [the French nazi-collaborating regime], as a secretary of state.

Rear-Admiral Platon [1886-1944] was in charge of the French navy sea- and air-forces in Zeeland. From the first moment on he showed himself a genuine ally. His contacts with the Dutch commander of the Zeeland forces, Rear-Admiral van der Stad, were cordial and respectful. The French Admiral coordinated all naval actions in a very professional manner and lived up to all expectations the Dutch may have had from their ally before the war. Although Platon distinguished himself in May 1940, he would later become a notorious Vichy commander and even make it to Minister of Colonial Affaires under Petain. He was a hard suppressor of the resistance that would later capture him [during the purge in France], torture him and kill him in the most terrible way [he was tight between trucks and successively drawn and quartered].

At Walcheren the Brigadier-General Marcel-Emile Deslaurens [1883-1940] took over from Durand at the 16th, and this officer proved a capable and decent person. When the French had withdrawn their troops into Walcheren - after the Germans had easily overrun both Dutch defence-lines in Zuid-Beveland and the French defences along the canal - the General tried to form a new defence-line along the Sloe. However, his troops proved exhausted and no organisation could be established. When Deslaurens' troops had been run off at the Sloedam, it was all over. The French were ordered to retreat via Flushing and evacuated to Zeeuws-Vlaanderen. Deslaurens himself took care of organising the defence against the pursuing Waffen SS, and during this action he proved himself a very courageous man. In the final confrontation with the SS in the streets of Flushing, the General himself perished from a lethal head-shot. He is - still today - regarded a hero in Zeeland. Unfortunately this French General was a rare exception amongst an army that failed to impress anyone. Even the Germans proclaimed that they rather fought the better equipped French than the ill prepared Dutch - although the latter shall certainly not have included the Dutch that fought in Zeeland!

Conclusion

We shouldn't exaggerate the French failure in Noord-Brabant and Zeeland, for it didn't matter too much in respect to the final outcome. Still - the French performance - whether studied with a neutral or a biased eye - can not be determined as adequate in any aspect. It was stunning to learn that even during WWII - whilst being POW in a camp for senior officers - some French senior officers [who had fought with the 7th Army] had the "courage" to call General Winkelman to account for the poor Dutch performance in southeast Brabant. The Dutch General was not at all aware of the extremely poor performance of the French themselves and had felt embarrassed. Only after the war the picture of the poor French performance started to get shape in the rest of the Netherlands.

The Belgian army experienced exactly the same with the French, when the French blamed them for abandoning them when the Schelde-line was evacuated by the Belgians - although that retreat had been executed on orders of ... Gamelin himself. Later the French bullied the Belgians for capitulating, although the Belgian King had every bit of right (and reason) to do so.

It wouldn't be fair to blame the French and not taking into account that - after all - they fought on foreign soil. Quite a considerable number of French soldiers gave their lives in the process of that defence. These men fought and paid the highest price, whilst fighting on foreign soil for the cause and freedom of foreign people. The regular French soldier just followed orders, just like soldiers did in any nation. They deserve every bit of credit for their offer.

The awareness of modern warfare and modern battle-field tactics was very poor in French army circles, and although the French had the most formidable army of entire Europe - in many aspects superior to even the German army of those days - they didn't stand a change against the new strategic and tactical warfare the Germans introduced on the battle-field. Particularly the German application of a much extended geometry of fire and their expeditious operational style took the Allies by total surprise. The French had fallen in their own sword of complacency.

Although the French would continue to play a peculiar role in WWII, the Free French who joint De Gaulle would later proof that the French could be fine soldiers. Generals like Juin and Leclerc proved to be very capable leaders. The only aspect that the French would never learn - and what might still be seen today - is that they have the greatest difficulties in being a true ally and achieve things in close cooperation with other nations. Pride and arrogance - aspects that the Dutch officers who got involved with their French counterparts during the May War all experienced - often gets in the way of cooperation and camaraderie.